So … Jesus is telling us not to wash our hands before meals? That seems odd … Of course that is not the point of this passage. I don’t think Jesus is against trying to prevent spreading disease.
The issue for Jesus isn’t the ritual washing itself -- his issue is with how the Pharisees have decided that this (and probably many other things) are just as important as God’s commandment to love and serve others.
It’s kind of like saying that how chairs and tables are arranged for our community breakfast this morning is of equal importance to actually feeding people and being together. The set-up matters, but the exact method isn’t on the same level as providing a needed meal.
So let’s take a look at the problem this text points out, what the Gospel has to say about it, and what this all means for us.
Put simply, the problem is that we put our own desires above God’s commandments and mission. We make idols out of our traditions and gods out of our desires. There are two main examples of this in the text.
First, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of “teaching human precepts as doctrines.” I’m pretty sure this applies to us as well. We sometimes act as though our own practices and traditions are as sacred and unchangeable as if they were established by Jesus himself. Can you think of anything like that?
We also might not even know why we do what we do, like the woman in this story:
“One day, a mother was teaching her daughter the family recipe for making a whole baked ham. It was the very best ham anybody had ever had so they always followed that recipe carefully.
They prepared the marinade, scored the skin, put in the cloves, and then came a step the daughter didn't understand.
"Why do we cut off the ends of the ham?" she said. "Doesn't that make it dry out?"
"You know, I don't know," said the mother. "That's just the way grandma taught me. We should call grandma and ask."
So they called grandma and asked, "Why do we cut off the ends of the ham? Is it to let the marinade in, or what?"
"No," said grandma. "To be honest, I cut the ends off because that's how my mother taught me. Let's call great grandma and ask her."
So they called great grandma, and the old woman listened to their questions, and then she exclaimed:
"Oh, for goodness sake! I cut off the ends because I didn't have a pan big enough for a whole thing!" (adapted)
Sometimes traditions are very meaningful and make a big difference. But if we never ask why we do what we do, we may end up wasting perfectly good ham.
But back to the text. Jesus also informs the people that it’s not outside practices or conditions that defile, that force us away from God’s commandments -- he says it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come. Fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, envy, slander, pride, folly … add anything you like … these all happen because we act on poor motivations and bad intentions that arise within us.
There is a version of the Bible called The Message, which paraphrases Scripture in some evocative ways. It describes these sins as vomit from the heart, and says that they pollute our lives.
Vomit from the heart … pollution. These are some strong images. And I think they’re accurate. When we act out of evil intentions, when we vomit from our hearts, our actions pollute. If you throw a bunch of trash and chemicals on the ground, it will start to ruin the soil. Eventually it may seep into plants. If you spread an untrue rumor about someone, it pollutes their lives -- it first affects them, then their family, then their relationships with other people. Both in nature and in our human lives, sinful actions spread and contaminate. It’s possible to clean up pollution, but it can be pretty hard.
So when we put our own desires first -- whether it’s our desires for how something has to be done or a sinful desire to act hurtfully -- we neglect other things.
We might not think about why we do what we do, and instead just go through the motions. We might miss out on a bigger picture because we’re so determined to do something our way. We might miss out on God’s mission and God’s call for us because we’re too focused on getting revenge or being jealous of someone.
We miss out on participating in God’s kingdom because we’ve replaced what should be central -- God’s commandment to love and serve others -- with something else.
But fortunately, God intends another way for us to live.
The response of the Gospel is pretty clear: God’s commandment to love and serve others is what’s most important, and should inform our whole lives. The second reading for today, James 1, tells us: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress … ” And in the passages in Mark that come after today’s Gospel reading are examples of loving and serving others, of bringing about God’s kingdom -- Jesus heals the Syrophonecian woman’s daughter, he heals a deaf man with a speech impediment, and he feeds thousands.
Orphans, widows, and those with disabilities were some of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised people at that time. Today this might those who are mentally ill and homeless, those who are new immigrants from war-torn countries, those who are sold as objects in human trafficking.
We can’t fix all the problems of the world, but making God’s commandment to love and serve others central would sure make a difference. If what is within our hearts is a focus on this commandment, then our actions will follow.
Our lives will reflect what we’ve decided is most important … which brings us to what this all means.
First, let me say what this doesn’t mean. You don’t need to get out pen and paper and make a checklist of things to do. You don’t need to post a list of morals on your wall. You don’t need to keep track of absolutely everything you do wrong.
This is not a call to perfection, nor is that even possible.
But, as one theologian (Karoline Lewis) says: “If you expect to follow Jesus, then this will demand an examination of yourself, of your true intentions, your true beliefs, and on what you stake your relationship with God.”
We need to ask ourselves if our practices and traditions help us to live as God intends. We need to examine our desires and our hearts. We need to be honest with ourselves about whether what we truly believe is reflected in how we live.
Jesus is calling us to put God’s mission before our own wishes. He is calling us to go beyond our comfortable traditions and jump into serving others.
It can definitely be hard in our society to put God’s commandment first -- you do have to make an effort. But if you do, you never know what might happen. As James also says, be doers of the Word. You might make a huge difference in someone’s life because you paid attention to their needs. You might inspire someone to love and serve because they see you as an example. You might find healing in your life because love replaced hatred in your heart.
Certainly you will be transformed.
You cannot control how others act or decide the values of society. But you can decide what’s most important to you and to live as an example. When you choose to ask a homeless person their name, when you choose to be an advocate for those suffering abuse, when you choose to pray for someone who’s hurt you -- you are choosing to reflect the love of God in who you are.
Who you are are is a beloved child of God called into this life of love and service. It might not be easy to examine your life and place God’s commandment in your heart … but I can’t imagine anything more worthwhile. Amen.